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Of the body and the hands: patterned iconicity for semantic categories

Hwang, S.-O., Tomita, N., Morgan, H., Ergin, R., İlkbaşaran, D., Seegers, S., Lepic, R., & Padden, C. (2016). Of the body and the hands: patterned iconicity for semantic categories. Language and Cognition, 9(4), 573-602. doi:10.1017/langcog.2016.28.
This paper examines how gesturers and signers use their bodies to express concepts such as instrumentality and humanness. Comparing across eight sign languages (American, Japanese, German, Israeli, and Kenyan Sign Languages, Ha Noi Sign Language of Vietnam, Central Taurus Sign Language of Turkey, and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language of Israel) and the gestures of American non-signers, we find recurring patterns for naming entities in three semantic categories (tools, animals, and fruits & vegetables). These recurring patterns are captured in a classification system that identifies iconic strategies based on how the body is used together with the hands. Across all groups, tools are named with manipulation forms, where the head and torso represent those of a human agent. Animals tend to be identified with personification forms, where the body serves as a map for a comparable non-human body. Fruits & vegetables tend to be identified with object forms, where the hands act independently from the rest of the body to represent static features of the referent. We argue that these iconic patterns are rooted in using the body for communication, and provide a basis for understanding how meaningful communication emerges quickly in gesture and persists in emergent and established sign languages.
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